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2012 Xterra: Nissan’s authentic SUV

For The Associated Press

(AP) – The 2012 Nissan Xterra sport utility vehicle is a rugged, capable off-roader with strong V-6 and authentic SUV ride and looks.

It’s this genuine SUV character that differentiates the high-riding, boxy Xterra from today’s slew of softer-riding, pavement-loving SUVs that have become popular with mainstream buyers.

To be sure, the five-seat Xterra, with its fully boxed ladder frame and rear suspension with solid axle and leaf springs, harkens back to the SUV basics _ even if buyers can opt for leather-covered seats instead of cloth in the top model. And, Xterra offers iPod connectivity these days.

Still, to SUV purists, the five-door Xterra can be a refreshing vehicle that provides an old-school ride along with a new-car warranty.

Consumer Reports says Xterra reliability has been above average.

Just don’t expect to get great fuel economy. The best rating the 2012 Xterra receives from the federal government is 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. A four-wheel drive test model averaged 15.6 mpg in combined, city, highway and off-road travel.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base, 2012 Xterra X with two-wheel drive and automatic transmission is $26,035. The lowest starting retail price for a 2012 Xterra with four-wheel drive is $28,085 for a base X model that comes with automatic transmission.

These prices compare to the $28,750 starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a front-wheel drive, 2012 Kia Sorento with 276-horsepower V-6 and automatic transmission and the $30,450 starting price for an all-wheel drive 2012 Sorento with V-6 and automatic. Note that the Sorento also is offered with a four-cylinder at a starting retail price of $23,950. All Sorentos come with automatic transmission.

But the Xterra has one engine only _ a 261-horsepower six cylinder _ and can be ordered with a manual transmission that some off-roaders prefer.

Meantime, the competing 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser with two-wheel drive, 260-horsepower V-6 and automatic has a retail starting price of $26,875.

The Xterra tester was the top-of-the-line Pro-4X with fog lights at the front bumper, light bar on the roof and skid plates protecting the lower part of the engine in case it hits a rock or tree stump off-road.

Like all Xterras, the tester featured noticeable, large flared wheel wells, a hood that’s chest high and flat metal sides devoid of decoration. There’s even a step built into the side of the Xterra, near the rear bumper, that helps driver and passengers access items stowed on the roof during those off-road excursions.

Nissan also offers an Xterra tent that connects the cargo area to a tented sleeping and living area once a day’s travels are over.

And, in contrast to softer SUVs, the Xterra carries around under the rear cargo floor a full-size spare tire. A small, temporary spare would never do in the wilderness.

Small statured people have to scramble to get up onto the front seats of the Xterra, which has a minimum ground clearance of 8.2 inches in the base model and up to 9.5 inches in the Pro-4X.

Views out front in the tester were great as the driver looked down onto the roof of a Mini Cooper. But a Honda Odyssey van and large pickups still blocked views ahead. Backing up the Xterra was a bit stressful because metal pillars alongside the tailgate window blocked views, and there’s no factory option for a backup camera.

Nissan does, however, offer a mind-blowing Rockford Fosgate audio system with eight speakers and a subwoofer. Satellite radio is available, too.

The 4-liter, double overhead cam V-6 is a longtime, award-winning powerplant at Nissan and moves the heavy Xterra along in sprightly fashion. Just a touch of the accelerator and the test Xterra rushed forward eagerly. Throttle tip-in was light, which required the driver to learn to carefully meter foot pressure to drive smoothly. Otherwise, the engine’s 281 foot-pounds of peak torque at 4,000 rpm came to the fore.

The Xterra merged well into traffic. But wind noise became noticeable at just over 40 miles per hour, and even at stoplights, sounds from nearby cars entered the passenger compartment.

There’s no refined ride in the Xterra. On uneven pavement, passengers felt a bounciness, and a sensation of heaviness at the four wheels was evident. In turns and sweeping curves, passengers felt “head toss” in the tall 4,200-plus-pound vehicle as weight shifted from one side to the other. Note: The test vehicle had the Pro-4X’s Bilstein gas-filled shock absorbers for a tighter ride off-road.

Headroom is a generous 39.3 inches in front and rear seats, and rear legroom of 34.4 inches is better than what’s in the FJ Cruiser.

Fit and finish on the Tennessee-built Xterra was excellent, with body gaps outside consistent and interior plastic materials lined up just so.

The Pro-4X came with an attractive cloth upholstery that looked to have a cloth netting, in contrasting color, over it. It worked well to keep passengers from sliding around in the seats.

But the Xterra’s ceiling material looked cheap, and none of the windows came with a power-up function. The driver’s window had power-down only.

Still, the Xterra’s many usable storage spots were impressive for how much they could hold. Two cupholders between the front seats can accommodate large drinks, for example, and there are two gloveboxes.

The 2012 Xterra has been the subject of one safety recall involving bolts holding the engine oil filter and engine cooler in place. Some bolts could break at the oil filter attachment point, causing oil to leak and creating the potential for the engine to seize up and cause a crash.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)